The melody never stops

Saxophonist Sonny Rollins wants it known that although he recently turned 75, has been making jazz music for well over 50 years and has performed with the likes of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, he has absolutely no intentions of retiring, ever. But Rollins devotees (the most ardent of whom would walk through fire nude for a performance) may be wary of the I-will-never-retire spiel. In 1959, at the apex of his celebrity, he walked away from the jazz scene. In the early ’70s, he took off to India to study yoga. But each time Rollins returned to jazz.

What is it about the saxman that inspires such devotion from fans? Well, there is that glorious and voluptuous tenor sound, not to mention his sleek improvisations and his way of serving up ballads that are romantic without being sentimental. Recently, Rollins talked with Metro Times about matters from his new disc (Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert) to his affection for Detroit.

Rollins keeps a Manhattan apartment on the 39th floor of a building that’s about six blocks from the World Trade Center. He was there on the fateful day.

I heard this plane flying in kind of low. Then I heard, “Pow!” I pulled out this old black-and-white television set. I got it working, and then I saw the second plane come into the other tower. So I said, let me go downstairs and see what’s happening. And I went down there. Of course, there was bedlam on the street. People were running and women were screaming. The people in the street began yelling that the second tower was coming over. So I started running because if it had fallen over, we all would have been cooked. There was this thick dust and toxic fumes. So I finally decided to go back upstairs. Like a fool I started practicing. I started playing, and my stomach felt a little funny. I realized that I had been inhaling the dust and the fumes. The power went out, and the next day they evacuated us.

Five days after 9/11, he debated doing a gig in Boston. His wife, Lucille, who has since died, weighed in.

My wife was a person very much into trying to honor contracts. I wanted to cancel it because I was just shook up. So maybe she realized that this would be a good thing for the audience and the people. But if it was up to me, I wouldn’t have done it. I was just wiped out.

Not all reviews of his latest record have been great, and one critic not raving is Walter Theodore (Sonny) Rollins himself.

I’m never pleased with the outcome of anything I do. I’m one of those people always trying to get better the next time.

Jazz fans seem to have an unquenchable curiosity about two years when Rollins withdrew from the public.

As I began to get popular all of sudden in the late ’50s, I began to feel that, damn man, I’m not really playing as much as I can. There was no doubt in my mind.

I remember one time when I had another epiphany. I was playing a gig with Elvin Jones, and we played at this place in Baltimore, and there was all this hype: Sonny Rollins, Sonny Rollins. And the job turned out to be a real drag; I just couldn’t get anything going. And I said, “Fuck this shit — I’m going to woodshed and get my shit together.” That’s what I did.

So the saxman and his wife moved to a small apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, next door to drummer Frankie Dunlap. But the horn-blowing troubled Dunlap’s pregnant wife, so Rollins took to practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge over the East River.

I was near my apartment one day, walking around, and I looked up — this was another epiphany — I looked up and saw these stairs. I knew that there was a bridge there, so I walked up and found a nice and wide-open space. There was nobody around. I went back to my apartment and got my horn. I walked across the middle of the bridge, got a spot where the trains and cars really couldn’t see where I was. I used to go up there and practice 18 hours a day.

After two years — about the time that word of his open-air practice sessions became public — Rollins went back to work. His comeback album, The Bridge, is considered one of his most profound.

I could’ve stayed on the bridge for the rest of my life. I made the decision to go back, which was difficult because I was really chillin’ up there. I was doing everything that I wanted to do. I was practicing. I got my health together.

Rollins got hooked on jazz at an early age.

When I was a little boy, I remember hearing Fats Waller, and that kind of music just made me feel good. And Louis Jordan used to play at a club that was across the street from my elementary school. They used to have this picture of him in the window. I used to see him out there in his tuxedo and I said, “Man, that’s what I want to do.” So I listened to all his albums. I became a big devotee of him.

I got my mother to buy me a secondhand alto sax, and that was how it started.

Rollins took 25-cent lessons at the New York School of Music, studied with neighborhood musicians in Harlem, had his first professional gig with singer Babs Gonzales and went on to work with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell — and to follow Charlie Parker’s music and bad habits.

I said, gee, I must be on the right track. It was great, but it was also very dangerous because I got messed up on drugs. Drugs were heavy on the scene at that time.

It was around 1955 that I was, as the saying goes, walking in the shadow of the valley of death. I was in and out of institutions. Charlie Parker pulled my coat one time. I realized that Bird didn’t want his young protégé on drugs. I realized that something had happened between us. It was destroying him to see all these young cats doing drugs just because he was doing them, and that we thought it would make us play better.

In 1955, Rollins kicked his heroin habit for good after a 4-1/2 month stint in a Kentucky rehab. He came out a new man, but he never got to see Parker again — the lifelong drug abuser had died the same year.

I came out and I got myself together. So that was that for all those drugs.

Stories about Rollins’ sax duels with Detroiter Yusef Lateef, particularly one night at the West End Hotel, are stuff of local legend.

Detroit was always a huge jazz source. It was always lovely when I got a chance to go there and play. Yusef has always been a great mentor to me. He is a beautiful person who always helped my career. Mentor says it all; he gave me the ideas of what to do and what not to do in this thing called life. So you need people to look up to. You always need an idol. Yusef has always been there for me. The thing about the sax battles — let me just say that I always look up to him musically.

I’ve always been the kind of person that keeps learning. Music never ends. There is always something you can do with it.


Saturday, Oct. 1, 8 p.m., at Hill Auditorium (825 N. University, Ann Arbor; 734-764-2538). With Rollins are Clifton Anderson, trombone; Bobby Broom, guitar; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Kimati Dinizulu, percussion; Al Foster, drums.

Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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